This is personal. It has to be. It must.
This is the truth. It's plain and simple. The way all truths are structured at the core, sans excuses.
This is painful. Not anger. Just the pain... the kinds you feel when the anger dies. Somewhere, after the sense of shame. Somewhere towards the end...a dark, closed ball of rage. The kinds that you see every night. Eyes shut. Lips pursed tight. Lines appearing on your forehead... before they disappear.
I was around twelve. I had my periods early. Or so I was told. I never asked whether that was common. If girls my age bled for four days, clutching their stomachs, writhing in pain, sitting out at the school basketball tournament, walking cross-legged, slinging their heavy satchels over their backsides, hoping to hide a faded blotch of redness. I don't remember much else. Except that we were on a holiday. Except that my mother had packed a huge, big packet of Angela sanitary pads. Except that I was sore. Inside out. Except that I felt different. Walking slowly to the toilet outside our musty train compartment.
My grand-father had packed a lot of storybooks. In case I got bored on the onward journey. Tales of bravery and bravehearts. Rajkahini. By Abanindranath Tagore - folklore from the land of warrior princesses and dusty sand dunes. Of camels and concubines. Of conquests and caravans. Tall tales. Of handsome, moustached Rajput men saving damsels in distress and bejeweled queens burning on the funeral pyre of their slain warlords.
I was singing. It was almost dark. The toilet was occupied. I stood outside, staring at the smudged evening Sun. The way everything was just moving away too fast. On the inside that is. The world from a tiny train window.
He wasn't very tall. But, he had a moustache. And had a pot belly. He was wearing a kurta. It's corners damp. He was elderly. Younger than grand-father.
I don't know why I smiled. Moving aside. The Sun set just then. It was the last day of my periods. I was carrying an Angela in a plastic bag. He grabbed it from my hands, placing his hands over my mouth, pulling me deftly into the bathroom. I tried screaming. I was shell-shocked.
He was stronger, overpowering me. At first. All the while moving his mouth in a strangely insidious manner, his chest heaving up and down. I tried reading his lips. It was also the first time I'd been touched by a man. Facing an Indian style commode. Stained in parts.
With one swoop, he lifted up my sweater. It was winter. His one hand still covering my mouth. I was gagging. I tried saying something. Screaming.
I don't know how many times I tried, before I failed. Before he won. Maybe it doesn't even matter. Now.
'Nice boobs,' he kept muttering, squeezing my breasts up and down, his yellowed nails digging in through my simple cotton bra. My first under garment. Called Peter Pan. Bought from New Market in Kolkata.
Ironical, isn't it? As I often tell myself now, whenever I recall that day. That moment. Those few minutes in a train to Jaisalmer, when a man I knew not fondled my breasts in a discolored train loo. His front pressed to mine. His stale after breath covering my face as he grinned lewdly, his hands fidgeting with my bra strap.
'Nice boobs,' he said again. And again. And again.
I've never spoken about this incident to anyone. Before tonight. I tried once. Telling a cousin sister I was very close to. A year or so after the ugly incident. 'You're lucky he didn't shove his thing into you,' she smirked, sucking on raw mangoes on our terrace.
I was crying a lot. Mosquitoes circled over our heads. An odd buzz. Like the mechanical drone of a train, perhaps.
'Oh stop it. You know how many women get felt up in crowded buses, huh? Or in market places? You know I once had a family friend flash me his private. He was quite old. These things are normal. I mean... I know you feel dirty and stuff. But really, thank your lucky stars that there were others waiting outside the loo that evening. Imagine if the guy outside wasn't dying for a shit! Get used to this - it's what being a woman means. In India,' she stated sternly, pulling me up by my shoulders.
As I sit watching the city of Delhi shudder in shame and cry itself hoarse, as I stare at women carrying placards and shout angry slogans, as I hear dozens of panelists shake their grim faces and propose ways to make this nation rape free, as I flip channels, moving from one press conference to the next. The same dialogue. The same police officer.
A woman this time. Defending an impotent system. A lawless country where the sons of ministers and rich film stars get away with molestation charges by stuffing wads of cash into the right pockets, where justice delayed is norm, where most often the police force is a mere political pawn acting at the behest of their high command, where women are still burnt for dowry and hit by their husbands.
A country of Sita, Kali and Durga, where women are often objectified and defiled and yes, in the same breath. Where a mother-in-law and a mother still forbid a woman from entering the kitchen or participating in a puja because she's having her periods, for fear of contamination. Where women are married to trees to get rid of planetary infliction, where she is made to follow rigorous fasts every Tuesday to aid in contraception. Where witch doctors and God men and women still control a woman's fate. A country of contradictions where mothers are still heard telling their daughters, 'Beta dhang ke kapde pehno'. Where words like izzat and aabru shelter a woman's soul, instead of setting it free, instead of celebrating her female form. A country where in arranged marriages, prospective in-laws still ask the parents of the girl to send her side profile and full profile shots. Where fair and lovely is what sells. Where a woman who is single, by her own choice is often crucified as being fast. 'Uska toh character dheela hai,' you say.
A country where the national Capital has registered a whopping 17% rise in rape cases this year with 661 such incidents being reported till December 15 as compared to 564 during same period last year. A country where female fetuses are still aborted. A country of superstition and secrets. A country of corny Kamasutra brochures, where sex is still taboo. Where something as banal as Valentine's Day still draws fanatical political ire in some regions. Where prime time soap operas thrive on venerating the suffering, silent, pativrata bahu whose biggest battleground is predominantly the kitchen. The lakshman rekha of her womanhood. After which a ghunghat must be neatly drawn. Head covered. Eyes lowered.
As the night draws and the dust settles over Raisina Hill, I'm left wandering is sloganeering and demanding the death penalty for rape enough? Is blaming the Congress Government or Sheila Dixit or Sonia Gandhi the solution? Is social activism a sure shot cure for a malaise in the system? A largely parochial, patriarchal order, where for generations, women have been treated like fodder. Pleasure givers. Baby makers. Forbidden to seek pleasure, in the same measure. Sometimes even from the same master.
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for outrage. But, I can't help cross referencing my own personal history here. About how I hid for all these years. About friends I have seen and strangers I have listened to - especially while researching my third book Sita's Curse who were raped daily in the privacy of their bedrooms, behind closed doors. Tied to bedposts, asked to make MMS videos, whipped by hairy husbands, paraded to family gurujis who touched them, inappropriately. How so many women... how someone like me, just chose silence, delineating ourselves to a mere statistic? Becoming in that moment the women without a voice, the ones who sold out. Sold out fast.
Why do we chicken out when it comes to ourselves? Why don't we raise our voice when a male colleague at work sends us dirty texts after work? Why do we not walk into the HR department at once when an ageing boss makes lewd, suggestive remarks? Why do we allow our perpetrators to think they can get away? That it's easy enough. That this is India. Yahan pe sab chalta hai.
Could it be the low conviction rate for rape? As low as 10 percent declares a recent news report if you count rapes that are not reported. This despite rape being a punishable offence with 7 years jail, or 10 years to life for gang-rape. What are we so ashamed of? Our social terra firma? Our conscience? Our moral fabric? Our gender inequality? Generations of abuse? Unreported? Unnoticed? Untouched?
'Let's face it, if a rape victim lives, will our narrow minded, hypocritical society ever allow her live a normal life? Will she ever get married? Will her family ever be spared the snide remarks and the cruel stares? And what about counselors and women and child shelters? Are there enough here? And what about the Police? Are they even sensitive to the victims in such cases? And don't even get me started on our judicial system... man...that torture for the victim and her family tantamounts to another rape probably,' claims a friend who is incidentally a Supreme Court lawyer.
'But there is talk of fast track courts to speed up justice for rape case victims,' I try interrupting when she adds firmly, 'Listen we are just shouting hoarse right now, getting so emotional because of the enormity of the crime that was just committed. The scale of cruelty and torture... the way the girl in the school bus has shown a mirror to our own social impotency. Would the same reaction be witnessed if such an incident had occurred in a small village in the heart of India? Something the media would have not even got wind of. Then what? Who would we blame then?' she quips in.
Her question gets me thinking. One last time. I wander what would have happened had I run back to my mother and pulled the chain to stop the train. I go back in time.
And just when the frustration rears its familiar head, I tell myself that this time... this time I will not look for someone to blame. That like the India unfolding before my eyes, I must look outside now.
To not see rape and abuse as the man who groped my breasts, but the person who made me into a woman. Making me grow up. Making me know that I had something that needed to be guarded and fought for. That I was worth that - an iota of dignity and lots of self respect. That I wasn't too young back then. Just too ashamed. Thinking that what I had could be taken away by someone. By a stranger with eyes the color of night. Someone with some power over me.
Let's face it. It's hard to be a woman. It always has. It always will and trust me when I tell you it's never going to get any easier. But as I watch a young woman protester punch a police officer, shoving her hand indignantly in his face, trying to balance her lone poster, falling on the ground and shaking off the dust from her trousers as she gets up on her feet again, I know we will win. In the end.
Women like us. Everyday women. Women in short skirts. Women in high heels. Women without brassieres. Women with streaked hair. Women with naval piercings and tattoos. Women with multiple lovers. Women and children. Women with elaborate ghunghats and pallu trailing. Women in burqas and bazaars. Women in red light areas. Women in discos and nightclubs. Women protestors. Women on Facebook and Twitter. Women on top. Women with scars. Women with stories. Women with stains. Women in bikinis and bikes. Women on poster covers. Women in sports. Women in saris and salwaars. Women with moles and warts.
And 'nice boobs'.
Women who live on. The women of India.
The fight that never ends. A fight that must turn inwards with the same sharpness that it now defends itself.
On the outside. Standing up. Standing tall. And this time not covering her breasts. Or looking away.